Science Center of Iowa Blog

At the Science Center of Iowa, our goal is to be a quality community resource for informal science learning where children, families, school groups and individuals come to explore science and technology. To continue the learning outside our walls, we give you the SCI blog! Our knowledgeable staff, along with special guests and local scientists, will give you a behind-the-scenes look at SCI activities and in-depth information about science events.

Latest Posts


SCI Staff Spotlight: Meet Rhiley Binns

SCI Staff Spotlight: Meet Rhiley Binns

For SCI Programs Presenter Rhiley Binns, science education encompasses a variety of interests — and unusual audiences. From space enthusiasts and SCI visitors to reptiles and red pandas, Binns’ career has provided an array of interactions at every turn.

After graduating from Central College with a degree in biology, Binns joined the SCI staff as a summer camp iEARTH educator. She introduced campers to Iowa’s natural habitats, waterways and native animals, championing conservation through canoe rides, hikes and hands-on activities.

“There are amazing natural spaces in the Des Moines metro, and I loved spending every day outside exploring with campers,” Binns said.

Her audience changed considerably that fall when she started a new role as the small mammal keeper at the Blank Park Zoo. Binns worked with red pandas, primates and more. Interacting with a diverse array of animals kept her busy, but there’s one audience she missed in particular.

“I missed interacting with the public and teaching people about science,” Binns said.

Today, she’s back at SCI full-time as a programs presenter, and she gets to work with Iowa’s native animals while sharing her passion for biology, conservation and science. Binns leads live programs like Cold-Blooded Critters, Zap! and more, as well as educating visitors about natural objects at theCollectors’ Cornermini-exhibit.

Binns’ passion for science education still takes her outside at monthly Star Parties at Ewing Park and at SCI. Her new role as SCI’s astronomy expert keeps her in tune with what’s going on in the solar system.

“I’ve been interested in astronomy since I was a child, so I love sharing what’s happening in the night skies with visitors and showing them how telescopes work,” she said. “It’s amazing when you see someone come to their first Star Party and experience the solar system in a new way.”

Category: General SCI


Iowa’s oldest oak makes SCI its new home

Iowa’s oldest oak makes SCI its new home

The oldest oak species in Iowa is coming to SCI in the form of a giant tree slice that took more than five years to prepare.

Animal Specialist Mark Rouw teamed up with the Iowa DNR, the Army Corps of Engineers, SCI staff and private land owners in 2012 to harvest a slice of the 442-year-old oak, which blew down in a storm near Hartford, Iowa, in 2005. Preserving the wood was the next step — one that required years of patience and, of course, science.

After a trip to the sawmill to cut the specimen straight, Rouw sanded the surface and applied a wood-stabilizing chemical to the tree slice and let it dry for more than three years.

“It’s all about how slow it dries,” he said. “We had some setbacks along the way but adjusted the chemicals as we went.”

Three years later, the tree slice will soon move into its new, permanent home in SCI’s upper level experience platform What On Earth? on February 13. First, though, it’s being outfitted with a custom circle frame to hold the wood together.

After years of work, Rouw said he’s excited to have a historic piece of Iowa’s environment at SCI.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the finished piece,” he said.

Visit SCI this spring to see the finished product in What On Earth?, and don’t miss other upgrades throughout the exhibit made possible in part through support from the State Historical Society of Iowa, Historical Resource Development Program.

Category: General SCI


The Math of Making STEM Connections

The Math of Making STEM Connections

1,624 containers of Play-Doh, 203 sewing machines, 406 rolls of duct tape… And that’s just the start. It all adds up to SCI’s Making STEM Connections kits for educators across the state.

Making STEM Connections kits have transformed classrooms and libraries into dynamic makerspaces, complete with a variety of innovative materials. The Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council selected SCI’s Making STEM Connections for the 2016-17 Scale-Up Program, giving educators access to hands-on, interactive program for grades K-8.

From building a robot that can draw to creating textiles, Making STEM Connections works with educators’ existing curriculum to enhance STEM skills and reinforce the Maker mindset through interactive problem-solving.

SCI Education Specialist Jolie Pelds has managed the project – from purchasing materials to leading professional development trainings at schools.

“Making STEM Connections has given the Science Center of Iowa the opportunity to help educators all across the state create a makerspace in their learning environment,” Pelds said. “The combination of professional training and a tool cart with materials provides a platform to build on hands-on experiences that ignite students’ interest in STEM.”

So… What do Making STEM Connections kits for more than 430 educators in 101 Iowa cities look like?

  • 406 rolls of duct tape
  • 1,218 MaKey MaKey invention kits
  • 203 sewing machines
  • 896 books
  • 2,030 felting needles
  • 6,090 Lithium button cell batteries
  • 1,624 containers of Play-Doh
  • 1,015 packages of zip ties

Volunteers and staff contributed more than 100 hours packaging all the kits, creating memorable makerspaces for classrooms in the Des Moines metro and beyond.

For Pelds, the impact of Making STEM Connections lasts long after all the tool carts are shipped to schools across the state.

“It has been so exciting to hear from teachers on all the ways that they have been able to enrich their existing curriculum with the Making STEM Connections program,” she said.

At Lamoni Middle School, science teacher Liz Carpenter said Making STEM Connections kits have given her students new opportunities for project-based learning.

“My kids were so excited when the tool cart arrived and I started showing them the supplies,” Carpenter said. “One of my girls was looking in all the drawers and said, ‘Oh, I can hardly wait to start my project!’ We have been using the drill, saw, tools, batteries and other items from the kit since about a day after it arrived.”

Learn more about Making STEM Connections and SCI professional development for teachers

Category: General SCI


Unearthing the American dream at Effigy Mounds

Unearthing the American dream at Effigy Mounds

Effigy Mounds in northeast Iowa has layers of significance. There’s the park’s importance among Native American communities. There’s its status as Iowa’s only national monument. There are the physical mounds, each mystically carved into Iowa’s landscape.

Located in Monona, Iowa, in Allamakee County, Effigy Mounds joins national parks and historical sites under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which celebrates its centennial in August.

The park’s trademark mounds were formed by Native Americans in the shapes of animal spirits, including birds, deer, bison and lynx.

Northeast Iowa and Wisconsin are the only places in the Midwest have these types of highly concentrated mounds.

The mystery is part of the park’s allure for Effigy Mounds Cultural Resources Manger Albert LeBeau. He understands how the mounds were made — it’s the lingering “Why?” that inspires lasting relationships and collaboration with more than 20 Native American tribes.

“It’s about making sure that story is being told and making sure it’s told correctly,” LeBeau says. “We work hard to reestablish a working relationship with tribal partners. We have open, frank conversations about the management of the park together.”

For Chief Ranger Bob Palmer, the park’s importance is rooted in little moments that embody what it means to be an American.

Palmer’s national parks career has taken him to North Carolina, the Virgin Islands, Virginia and the north island of New Zealand. At Effigy Mounds, he oversees everything from visitor center operations and school visits to environmental protection and park upkeep.

Distilling a 29-year national parks career into a moment or two is tough for Palmer, but one Effigy Mounds moment still has him tearing up, 15-some years later.

Palmer took a group of fourth graders on a hike at Effigy Mounds, asking history trivia along the way.

He started things off with a story about Fort Crawford, which is across the Mississippi River. The commanding officer’s daughter there married a soldier named Jefferson Davis. Palmer asked if anyone knew who Davis was.

“This little boy raised his hand and shyly said, ‘Wasn’t he the president of the confederacy during the Civil War?’ ‘Yes, yes, he was,’ I said. ‘And his father-in-law was Zachary Taylor, does anyone know who Zachary Taylor was?’”

The boy answered question after question correctly, even acing Zachary Taylor’s nickname: “Old Rough and Ready.”

Palmer finished the hike and stopped to chat with the boy’s teachers.

“I said, ‘Boy, that fella is really switched on. He knows his history,’ and she looked at me, and said, ‘Yeah, he’s a Bosnian immigrant. He’s only been here for two-and-a-half years because his family was in the civil war in Bosnia. They moved over here, and he’s really embraced being an American.’”

Fifteen-some years later, that moment still encapsulates Palmer’s understanding of America’s National Park Service and all it encompasses.

“The value of our parks, national monuments and historical sites allows us to weave a tapestry among our citizenry that brings us all together in one form or another,” Palmer said. “You go to these parks and people have experiences that transform their lives. In that case, it was an experience that transformed mine.”


Experience the transformative power of the parks with National Parks Adventure in IMAX at SCI. Plus, get a local taste of America’s nationally protected lands with a trip to Effigy Mounds this summer!

Category: General SCI


How #MuseumInstaSwap came to Des Moines

How #MuseumInstaSwap came to Des Moines

By Taylor Soule, SCI communications coordinator

Last week, we threw a party with our friends for Iowa Museum Week — on Instagram! I organized the first-ever #MuseumInstaSwapDSM, featuring six Des Moines cultural institutions “swapping” stories and photos on Instagram on Wednesday, June 8.

Where did this idea come from? As I scrolled through Twitter one evening in February, New York City’s #MuseumInstaSwap caught my attention. Air and space museums, design museums, science centers, art museums, history museums and more teamed up for a special, one-day social media event.

Each museum teamed up with another institution, and the swap strived to pair up institutions with different audiences, exhibits and missions. It was inspiring to see 18 NYC institutions publicly support each other and share each one’s important role in educating visitors from around the world. Naturally, I decided Des Moines needed its own #MuseumInstaSwapDSM!

Planning Des Moines’ own Instagram party

Planning a day-long Instagram party is any millennial’s dream, so I started emailing contacts from several institutions that participated in the NYC swap. They provided valuable insight into the process of coordinating the swap and pairing up participating institutions.

Next, I reached out to our contacts at five local institutions: the Blank Park Zoo, the Des Moines Art Center, Living History Farms, the Salisbury House and Terrace Hill. They all said yes!

All six institutions submitted a 140-character “pitch” describing why participating museums should partner with them for the swap. Then, each museum had an opportunity to rank the other partners based on which institution it would most like to work with.

I matched them up as fairly as possible, and by mid-May, we had three pairs!

  • Blank Park Zoo and the Salisbury House
  • Des Moines Art Center and the Science Center of Iowa
  • Living History Farms and Terrace Hill

I announced the official pairings, and finally, it was time for the best part – exploring our partner museum in pursuit of awesome Instagram photos. I visited the Des Moines Art Center and toured all three of the institution’s distinct buildings and snapped photos of my favorite pieces, the museum’s iconic works of art, as well as an #ArtCenterSelfie or two.

What I learned from #MuseumInstaSwapDSM

This project ingrained Instagram in my daily social media routine; I looked forward to posting every hour or so throughout the day after writing all my posts the Sunday before. I had long perceived Instagram as a tool to share what we’re doing here at SCI. #MuseumInstaSwapDSM revealed Instagram’s potential as a collaborative tool, enabling me to share SCI’s brand and mission while advancing the important work of another Des Moines museum.

It was fun to see how participating institutions adapted their own brands for the day. I loved the Blank Park Zoo’s #WildAboutHistory hashtag from their visit to the Salisbury House, for example. The Art Center incorporated its signature #entirelyunexpected hashtag in posts about SCI’s Blank IMAX Dome Theater and our newCollectors’ Cornermini-exhibit.

Thanks to our friends at the Blank Park Zoo, Des Moines Art Center, Living History Farms, Salisbury House and Terrace Hill for saying yes to the idea and for celebrating Iowa Museum Week with us!

Category: General SCI